Royal Mail dispute: rank and file anger

Submitted by Matthew on 19 November, 2009 - 12:01 Author: Ed Maltby

On 18 November CWU postal workers’ union leader Dave Ward sent out a letter to union branches about the “Interim Agreement” made with Royal Mail bosses by the union leaders on Thursday 5 November. Responding to widespread rank and file anger against the deal, Ward wrote that “genuine problems persist” and “the Postal Executive [of the union] has agreed to review the position next Tuesday” [24 November].

However, the bottom line is that “divisional engagement must continue in an effort to resolve problems”.

The letter also hails the first meeting in the national negotiations between CWU and Royal Mail bosses, to take place on 19 November.

In an attached “CWU reps’ brief”, Ward claims it as a great prize that “Royal Mail are now locked in to a process that for the first time ever will include an independent third party” — namely Roger Poole, who now works for Business Link London (a business advisory service), but was until the early 1990s a NUPE union official.

Ward says that the CWU can return to strike action if Royal Mail is seen to “break an agreement supported by an independent chair and ACAS”. The problem is that all Royal Mail have agreed to do is negotiate — without the CWU setting any clear bottom lines — and Ward seems to make CWU action depend on the “independent chair” and ACAS agreeing that Royal Mail has not negotiated well enough.

In the Interim Agreement, CWU agreed to call off its strikes over job cuts and speed-up for at least two weeks. The bosses agreed to negotiate, at national level over a new agreement on jobs and conditions, and at local level, retrospectively, over changes imposed during 2009. No concrete concessions were extracted from management. Royal Mail bosses say, plausibly, that everything they have given in the Interim Agreement was already on offer before CWU’s national industrial action.

CWU leaders say they will review the progress of negotiations every two weeks, and can return to strike action if dissatisfied, since the strike ballot remains live.

But the Interim Agreement contains strong language committing the union to stop both national and local strikes, with Royal Mail promising only to negotiate and not to impose further changes before the end of 2009.

Negotiation is good, but the union should negotiate from a position of strength, with a clear, comprehensive list of demands, incorporating all the “local” issues, and with a clear idea of what it will do if there is a failure to agree.

The strike was solid, workplaces are well-organised, and strong solidarity committees were forming. Royal Mail was under severe pressure from the strike, especially in the run-up to Christmas.

At a national meeting of branch secretaries in London on 12 November, Dave Ward and the union’s Postal Executive Committee gave assurances that “If Royal Mail does not significantly shift” on unilateral changes and bullying, then the union would schedule more national action, possibly within a week. The 18 November letter makes no mention of industrial action, but only of “divisional engagement” with the option of “further national intervention” to negotiate over problems.

Postal workers are massively dissatisfied with the Interim Agreement. The membership was overwhelmingly against stopping the action during negotiations.

A few branch secretaries and area reps defended the PEC’s decision, but the tone of the discussion at workplaces was overwhelmingly against the agreement.

Postal workers expressed:

• frustration that the pressure on Royal Mail of an accumulated backlog of mail — pressure which had been paid for out of members’ lost wages — was being frittered away;

• concern that the “truce” may become a surrender, because it will be difficult to gear the membership back up for action.

• criticism of the high-handed manner in which Dave Ward kept the membership in the dark until the last possible minute.

One London postal worker told us that the PEC was wary of letting the national industrial action run on because, “they are scared of losing control of the membership; of being overtaken by events”.

A West Country CWU member told us that “a secret motivation for this new tough talk” — around 12 November — “was that things had got so bitter that the PEC was worried that there would be unofficial strikes. There is not much of a tradition in the CWU of lobbying and political opposition — instead people tend to react to things by just walking out”.

The word in the offices that Royal Mail bosses are mostly flouting by the “spirit” of the Interim Agreement, at least as the Postal Executive presented it. The Agreement was meant to bring a general “cooling down” of hostilities.

Instead, management attacks have continued unabated. In various workplaces, management are still using harsh discipline to bully workers and victimise the more militant CWU members — taking people off pay and suspending workers for such offences as “wilful delay” — i.e. failure to complete one’s shift on time. It seems that management attacks are worst in London.

It unclear whether this aggression is the result of a strategy being handed down from Royal Mail’s top bosses, or local management initiative. Either way, the top bosses are not countermanding it.

In spite of the Interim Agreement, the postal workers are still strong. The mood among postal workers is still for the fight to continue until real concessions have been won. Solidarity committees and real public support for the postal workers still exist. If postal workers fight on, and seize the advantage they still have in the run-up to Christmas, they can win.

The only way to be sure that the dispute is strong and conducted correctly is to build an organised rank-and-file network to monitor and control the dispute. Branches and reps opposed to the Interim Agreement should convene a national meeting as soon as possible and formulate a bottom-line list of positive demands going beyond Dave Ward’s single, bland demand for “proper negotiations”.

Don't let truce become surrender

By a London postal worker

Where are we, since the return to work on the basis of the “interim agreement”? Management in many areas are continuing their bullying and harassment as before.

They are charging people with wilful delay for not completing their deliveries in time and taking them off pay. They are keeping casuals in many mail centres and delivery offices. And they are refusing to review the changes brought in by Executive Action over the year. Rather, they are making plans for their next round of job cuts. Some areas have almost walked already.

When the union announced it was calling off the planned strikes in exchange for an agreement to keep talking, the immediate response was “what the f**k”, and “we’ve got nothing in exchange for our strike action”.

Now we’ve had a chance to read the “interim agreement”, we can see precisely what we’ve got.

The agreement amounts to a wish-list from the union – it contains lots of good things we want to see coming out of the dispute, but only in the form of “reviewing” and “examining”. On the other hand, management has got its wish of calling off the strikes.

The agreement commits management to reviewing changes they have introduced through executive action. Reps have been asking for that — a serious review of duties they have taken out, of walks they have collapsed, of shift times they’ve changed.

It says work should return to its proper mail centre – we have to monitor that.

It says “normal resourcing” – for us that must mean casuals are only used in the usual way in the run up to Christmas.

The agreement states that there will be an independent review every two weeks of progress, and the union insists that strike action can be re-instated at any time if management are stalling.

Management are doing worse than stalling. They are not even pretending to stick by the letter of the agreement. They must be hoping that the calling off of the strikes means they can string us along with promises that mean nothing until we feel it is too late to do anything. And all that without any agreement, beyond talking, about the future.

We need the strikes reinstated on a national basis. People will be reluctant to go out again, given we have lost momentum, but the alternative is to roll over and accept what management want to do to us.

We need to keep the pressure up on the Postal Executive to reinstate the strikes, and to call a national meeting of branches in favour if they refuse.

But we also need to assert control over the dispute, electing strike committees in every workplace and sending delegates from them to regional and national meetings. The disastrous “interim agreement” shows control has to be in the hands of those affected on the ground.

After Xmas, who knows?

A CWU rep in Glasgow gave Solidarity his personal opinion of the Interim Agreement and the Postal Executive Committee’s decision to call off the campaign of industrial action:

“I’ve seen the Interim Agreement. But, personally, I’m a bit worried about it because of our dealings with Royal Mail since the 2007 dispute. I see this dispute as an extension of the 2007 one, because that dispute was never really resolved.

I think Royal Mail are being a little bit coy. They want to get the Christmas mail delivered, and then in January we’ll have no leverage left because mail volumes go down in the New Year. And then Royal Mail could dig their heels in and say: ‘Two fingers to you!

Before the official action Royal Mail was provoking unofficial action, and then using that as an excuse to bring in restrictive practices.

They were asking drivers before they went out if they were prepared to cross picket lines. When drivers said that they wouldn’t, they were sent home without pay, and management banned people from taking their vans home with them, which they need to get to work the next day.

Where I work management has been willing to review restrictive practices and they have stuck to what they have said. But that’s not the case everywhere. Things have been left to local agreement, and I’ve heard stories that what’s been happening elsewhere is different from here.

The national ballot result is still active. We can call another strike by giving Royal Mail seven days notice, to meet the legal requirements. Because the ballot is still active, I’m hoping that Royal Mail will play ball, because of that threat. But when mail volumes go down after Christmas, who knows?

Personally, I think that Royal Mail does not want to deal with the union they way it has had to deal with us in the past. And that’s what this dispute is all about — our right to negotiate terms and conditions, and for ‘modernisation’ to take place through negotiations, not through Executive Actions.”

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